Much of the grime is gone from the Longfellow Bridge, its “salt-and-pepper” towers bask in sparkling granite glory, and the end is close for a five-year reconstruction project that is expected to cost more than $300 million.
So when the bridge fully reopens, now planned for May 2018, savor the moment and take a picture. The restored 110-year-old landmark might not look the same for long.
If past is precedent, the new bridge will be tagged in short order. At high-profile pieces of public property, including the Longfellow Bridge, the struggle to keep ahead of graffiti never ends.
A large, swirling scrawl mars a tower on the Boston side off Storrow Drive, despite a wall of protective fencing. Other tags have been sprayed on the bridge’s walls and railings.
Officials from the state Department of Transportation, which oversees the bridge, said graffiti will be removed or covered as the project continues.
“As with every piece of infrastructure throughout the state,” the department “works with law enforcement and members of the community in order to deter vandalism,” said Patrick Marvin, a spokesman for the agency.
Nate Swain, a street artist from Charlestown who is opposed to tagging, said it is only a matter of time before the new bridge is spray-painted again.
“You’re never going to stop the taggers,” said Swain, who works at Artists for Humanity, a nonprofit group that teaches art to low-income and underserved children.
It’s a narcissistic exercise, he said, that often crosses from art to vandalism.
“There’s really not much thought beyond the part of doing it,” said Swain, who once used vinyl to make a Greenway tunnel resemble a log cabin. “It’s, ‘Oh, this is my name, it’s all about me, I don’t care what other people think.’ ”
State transportation officials did not discuss how graffiti cases are handled or how they will protect their investment of more than a quarter-billion dollars. But in Boston, the graffiti battle is big enough to keep four city employees working full time in the field.
“It’s frustrating that we constantly have to go out and clean up the mess,” said Greg Rooney, city commissioner of property management, whose office does not have jurisdiction over the Longfellow Bridge.
In 2016, the city completed work on 2,519 cases of graffiti. This year, as of Wednesday, the city had received 2,668 requests through its 311 service to act on graffiti.
The downtown and Financial District area leads the city with 428 cases. The next highest neighborhood is Jamaica Plain with 342, followed by Back Bay at 306.
“This is definitely a high priority for Mayor [Martin J.] Walsh,” Rooney said. “If you have litter, trash, graffiti, it makes people think there’s an atmosphere of disorder.”
Often, Rooney said, a newly restored piece of public property such as the Longfellow Bridge can prove irresistible to taggers.
“Sometimes, you’re giving them a clean canvas,” he said. “It may be art to the person who painted it, but if the property owner didn’t want it, it doesn’t necessarily fall under the description of ‘public art.’ ”
The Longfellow Bridge was intended to be more than a target when it opened in 1906. Instead, the half-mile span, initially called the Cambridge Bridge, embodied the Brahmin ethos that Boston was a cultured city of world-class ambition. At the time, the bridge’s construction was designed to show even Boston’s public infrastructure would be stamped with grandeur.
Its architect and engineer traveled extensively in Europe to study bridges of importance and beauty. President William McKinley approved an uninterrupted span instead of a federally required drawbridge. And when the final plans were approved, a dubious piece of ancient local lore was set in stone.
The bridge’s four central piers each feature the bows of Viking ships, a nod to the theory promoted by a Harvard professor that Leif Eriksson, the great explorer, had nudged his Norsemen up the Charles River about 1000 AD.
The name of Longfellow Bridge arrived in 1927, a reference to an 1845 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about his midnight musings on its wooden predecessor, the West Boston Bridge, which itself replaced a ferry that had dated almost to the city’s founding.
Now, the bridge is approaching new life. Although full reopening is scheduled for a year from now, the final punch list of “to-do” items is expected to be complete in August 2018.
Swain suggested that part of the work include anti-graffiti coating applied at least 6 feet high. Taggers, who do their painting in seconds, “don’t like to climb,” he said.
“Painting granite is so disrespectful,” Swain said. “It’s such a wonderful material.”